At last, a science-fiction film that’s more about ideas than explosive visual effects. Alex Garland, the novelist-turned-screenwriter of such films as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go makes his directorial debut with this stylish mood piece, set in the very near future. Domhnall Gleeson plays a bright code-writer at a major Internet firm who wins an office pool. The coveted prize: a week’s getaway at his boss’ private compound, nestled in a remote location that’s reachable only by helicopter.
The Big Cheese is played by an almost-unrecognizable Oscar Isaac, who adds another exceptional performance to his growing résumé. His extreme physical appearance—bald head, bushy beard, buff but stocky body—reflects the man he’s playing, a world-famous mogul who does as he pleases, whether it’s pummeling a boxing bag or passing out dead drunk at night. He welcomes wide-eyed Gleeson to his private domain—where you can hear a pin drop—and while he’s superficially hospitable, he enjoys toying with the naïve visitor. Then he reveals the biggest secret in his arsenal: his latest invention, an artificial intelligence figure cloaked in the skin of a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander). She’s half droid, half goddess.
Isaac has brought Gleeson there to see how the young man responds to his creation—and how she reacts to him.
The story unfolds in this isolated world (created by Garland, production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy) and it is fascinating. Tension builds from one scene to the next, and it’s challenging to figure out what’s in store for Gleeson, and for us. My only caveat is that the structure of Ex Machina telegraphs that something is going to go terribly wrong; it’s not a question of if, but when and how. Knowing this undercuts the story to some degree, and makes the final act less compelling than the set-up.
Still, Ex Machina has much to offer, including fine performances, a great look, and a tangible air of unease. I’ll take this over Transformers any day.